Members of the public registered resounding opposition to HB 20, a bill that would create a universal school voucher program, at a public hearing on Tuesday afternoon. Due to the unprecedented and historic turnout, with 85% of it in opposition, the House Education Committee recessed and will continue the hearing on Thursday, Feb. 11, to hear from all 131 people who had signed up to speak at the virtual hearing, and they are accepting additional registrations to testify for those who have not signed up already.
About 30 people — including parents, educators, lawmakers, experts, and one student — testified over the course of four hours, and another 3,800 signed on to indicate their position on the bill: 600 in favor, 3,198 in opposition and five testifying as neutral, or not taking a position.
“That’s more than we’ve experienced in bills in the time I’ve been in the house,” Committee Chair Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill) said of the turnout. He has set aside the entire day on Thursday, February 11, for testimony, saying, “that’s the only way we’re going to get through this.” They’re expecting another record turnout on that day, and have said that they’re already receiving a flood of emails on the bill.
HB 20 would create taxpayer-funded “Education Freedom Accounts” that parents could then use to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other school-related expenses. There are no income limitations on the program, which would provide nearly all NH families between $3,700 and $8,400 per student in taxpayer dollars.
Those who spoke against the bill cited a variety of concerns, including the effects on public school districts that are already struggling, the potential misuse of funds, the lack of accountability included in the bill, and the potential for discrimination.
Supporters noted the need for the program, saying that the pandemic has forced families into different educational settings — namely, private- and home-schooling environments. However, HB 20 is the second effort in four years to pass a statewide voucher program: in 2018, SB 193 was killed because of the cost to local taxpayers and the inequity of the program.
Concerns over the bill’s oversight and accountability
“This bill provides absolutely no oversight or accountability,” said Deborah Nelson, a Hanover resident and parent of grown children. “This bill almost certainly dismantles public education in New Hampshire, and I fear it opens us to ridicule. … it should be called the Dismantling Public Education Bill.”
Vouchers won’t help kids who need it the most, said Monica Henson, interim superintendent for SAU 44 (Northwood, Nottingham, and Strafford). “The truth is that these accounts are subsidies to affluent families.”
Charles Siler, a former voucher lobbyist who championed voucher bills in Florida, Mississippi and Arizona and now advocates against them, said HB 20 was the most extreme he’d seen and warned of the potential backlash to lawmakers if they push the bill through. In the wake of a major voucher bill in Arizona, there was a groundswell of support for public education in the state, and Republican leaders took a beating at the next election, he said.
Supporting “disadvantaged” students
Those who spoke in favor of the bill voiced concerns about children who are struggling in the current system, particularly during the pandemic, and said the vouchers would help disadvantaged students find a path to success.
“This is about leveling the playing field,” said Shalimar Encarnacion, a Manchester mother and co-chair of the Manchester NAACP education committee. “We should make it possible for parents to choose what works best for their child.”
Looking at the Fiscal Impact
One open question at the hearing was the cost to the state and local taxpayers. According to Reaching Higher NH’s analysis, if only half of the eligible students signed up for the program HB 20 would cost the state over $50 million in new state spending in the first year alone. If all currently eligible students signed up, and no public school students were added to the eligibility list, that cost could jump to $102 million next year.
HB 20 would also downshift costs to local districts, as they would lose state funding due to further drops in enrollment.
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was among those who testified in favor of the bill, defending a fiscal analysis the Department of Education has conducted that assumes school districts would save money as a result of students leaving the schools. “Taxpayers can be the beneficiaries of innovative programs like this,” he said. “We offer a strong education system here in New Hampshire, and this is a program that will help meet the needs for whom that system is not working.”
Concerns Over the Logistics and Next Steps
Typically, New Hampshire elected officials are called on first to testify, and it has been a practice to prioritize New Hampshire residents over out-of-state testimony.
However, House Education CommitteeChair Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill) and Vice Chair Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro) deviated from that standard practice.
After introducing the bill, and allowing Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut to testify, the committee called on Jenny Clark, an Arizona-based school-choice activist, to speak. Typically, State Representatives are given priority, followed by New Hampshire residents, and this was a marked shift in practice.
Committee members also invited Siler to offer a counterpoint to Clark’s testimony after the State Representatives had an opportunity to testify.
The second hearing on HB 20 will take place on Thursday, February 11, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Members of the public can still sign up to testify, or register their support or opposition to the bill without speaking, at this link: http://gencourt.state.nh.us/house/committees/remotetestimony/default.aspx
Committee members will also welcome written testimony emailed to HouseEducationCommittee@leg.state.nh.us
Learn more about HB 20, the statewide voucher bill: